We've been wondering for months what the Bucks' strategy would be regarding Ramon Sessions, and I can't say I'm feeling all too optimistic these days--at least not as much as I was when the season ended. Earlier this week Tom Enlund rolled out an article on the Bucks' financial predicament, which from John Hammond's frequent quotations read kind of like a warning to fans: this summer could get ugly.
"I think any team around the NBA would say that if we are a team at the threshold of the luxury tax or exceeds the tax, then we want to have a championship-caliber team. And if you're not, then I think you have to re-evaluate where you're at. We could be a team in that position. We're looking forward to having a good year and making the playoffs (next season), but every step along the way, through the good and the bad, we have to keep a very close eye on our salary structure."
There's not a single debatable thing in that quote, but the question then becomes whether the Bucks' have their priorities straight. Michael Redd ($17.04 million) could have been traded to the Cavs for a package of expiring deals a year ago. Richard Jefferson ($14.2 million) reportedly could have been dumped in a similar deal at the deadline. Admittedly, no one was predicting the tax to fall a year ago, but the Bucks have still had chances to shed salary since the economic situation became more bleak.
And if the Bucks did prefer to keep their older, talented, and rather overpaid wings over Sessions, then how much do they regret turning down the Grizzlies' offer of Mike Conley for Sessions and Joe Alexander? I can't say I was a big fan of that trade (though this was before both Sessions and Conley finished the year strongly), but mainly because I was hoping for a Jefferson-for-expirings deal. That would have freed up more than enough space to re-sign Sessions and a full-MLE free agent. Villanueva or Ersan Ilyasova also would have filled the bill, especially given that CV may not find a huge market for his services this summer. Either way, you'd have the chance to retain a number of young contributors for reasonable amounts--a phrase that doesn't apply to the Bucks' big name wings.
As it stands now, the Bucks will have just $3 million under the tax assuming a) the threshold is the perhaps-optimistic $71 million and b) they keep both of their draft picks. Not good. So what will become of Sessions? Because Bird rights--the ability of a team to go over the cap to re-sign free agents--only apply to players who have played at least three seasons, the Bucks can't pay Sessions whatever he wants. Sessions' affordability (and the ability of the Bucks to retain him) is essentially guaranteed by the CBA's so-called Arenas rule, which prevents other teams from offering a player with two or fewer yeas in the NBA more than the mid-level exception (likely between $5.5 and 6.0 million next year) as a first year salary. All teams have the MLE every year, so the most the Bucks can offer Sessions would be an MLE-level deal. A team with cap space could offer more, but they wouldn't be able to boost the salary above the MLE until the third year of the contract (it's a weird loophole and I don't think it's ever been used). And even if that happens, the Bucks can match the offer and keep Sessions.
What makes me scratch my head isn't that the Bucks might not be willing to break the bank for Sessions--as we've seen with Gadzuic, Mo Williams, and Michael Redd, the rationality of paying to keep talent no matter the price has its limits. Rather, it's a bit odd that the Bucks aren't even trying to scare teams away from making him an offer.
In restricted free agency it's all about marking your territory by saying you'll match any offers and then watching other teams decide to spend their time elsewhere. With so many deals happening in the first weeks of free agency, there's a fair amount of risk in pinning your hopes on signing another team's RFA. For instance, if Sessions signs an offer sheet at the beginning of free agency, the Bucks can let a week go by before they have to decide whether or not they want to match it. If you're courting a number of possible PGs, that week's worth of waiting could leave you out in the cold if the Bucks allow the full seven days to go by and then match the deal.
But that demands you actually make teams think you might match. Right now, the Bucks seem weirdly non-committal but hopeful on the Sessions front, and I can't figure out a compelling argument for why, unless they just truly don't think Sessions is worth making a priority (possible, though weird considering their current roster). On the one hand, it' not like the Bucks' tax issues are a trade secret, but the Bucks don't have to broadcast their unwillingness to go over the tax threshold, either. I much prefer the strategy Utah is taking with Paul Millsap:
The Jazz, Miller said in a reiteration of comments made previously from within the organization, will do whatever it takes to retain restricted free agent Paul Millsap — even if their player payroll was pushed beyond $71 million and into tax territory because starting power forward Carlos Boozer, starting center Mehmet Okur and backup shooting guard Kyle Korver all were to decide against becoming free agents this offseason.
"If we need to," Miller told KSL-TV Ch. 5's Tom Kirkland, "we would not rule out paying luxury-tax money in order to keep him on the team."
It's not without its risk--the Jazz will have a lot of explaining to do if they reverse course and let Millsap walk for financial reasons. And providing a player with such overflowing praise can erode your negotiating stance as well. Still, this has been standard operating procedure for most teams and it's helped limit RFAs' salaries to well below what comparable unrestricted free agents have gotten.
All the uncertainty about Sessions also seems to be manifesting itself in mock drafts, which have been consistently mentioning point guards at #10. DraftExpress and Chad Ford both seem to be following the same lead on the Sessions story, projecting Syracuse PG Jonny Flynn will go to the Bucks at #10 (DX has video of Flynn working out at Tim Grover's gym down in Chicago if you're interested).
I don't really have anything in particular against Flynn, but it just seems a bit weird to me that he's now clearly ahead of Ty Lawson on all the draft boards. He's a year younger (and a better dunker) but otherwise what's not to like about Lawson? Both guys are smallish, but Lawson's scoring efficiencies (especially from three) and better care of the ball--not to mention the fact that he's led a team to a title--would seem to make him the safer pick. Instead DX has the Sixers getting Lawson at 17 and Ford has the Hawks stealing him at 19. I'll never claim to be a draft guru, but aren't people starting to overthink things a bit?
Fortunately, the Bucks seem to be having better luck scheduling workouts than they did a year ago, when essentially no one outside of Joe Alexander and Anthony Randolph seemed interested in being a Buck. Not surprisingly, most of the potential first rounders on their list are at positions of need--point and power forward. Jrue Holiday, Jonny Flynn, Earl Clark and Ty Lawson have all said they expect to work out for the Bucks while DeJuan Blair is currently scheduled to be in Milwaukee on June 11. Gery Woelfel writes that the Bucks also interviewed Jordan Hill in Chicago, while Lawson will be in town on June 22 and Holiday June 10. Unfortunately there's been no mention of DeMar DeRozan, who'll probably be gone by the time the Bucks pick anyway, but would be the best chance at finding an elite talent.
Whatever happens on draft night, it will likely tip the Bucks' hand when it comes to free agency. If the 10th pick is a power forward (ie Blair...or Hill if his stock plummets) then that would seem to finally seal Charlie Villanueva's exit and preclude the return of Ersan Ilyasova. It would also make losing Sessions a much bigger blow considering the Bucks would have just Ridnour, Salim Stoudamire (yikes) and Charlie Bell to split minutes at the point.
If the pick is a PG, then it doesn't automatically mean Sessions is a goner--afterall, the Bucks could move Ridnour for a stopgap PF and allow the new rookie to initially back up Sessions. But given the way the Bucks are talking about potentially drafting for need, seeing a PG called would certainly confirm some suspicions that the Bucks are not as high on Sessions as many of us fans are. In that case, the $3 million left under the tax could be used to bring back Ilyasova as a cheaper replacement for Villanueva in the PF rotation.